I’ve always been a word person. Actually, some of my earliest memories revolve around words. Walking to the library with my family on Shabbat, after synagogue, and reading all afternoon; the first time a book made me cry so hard I couldn’t finish it; the feeling of reading a passage that opens a new window to understanding the world in a different way. All of these moments (and many more) have defined who I am today.
Words are miraculous, multi-layered artifacts. They convey culture, and heritage, and history, and emotion, and so much more. A perfect sentence has the power to break a heart, to take one’s breath away, to change the paradigms within which we exist.
To Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson and Rabbi Zalman Abraham, co-authors of People of the Word: Fifty Words That Shaped Jewish Thinking, they are also the key to understanding the spiritual and philosophical teachings of Judaism.
Rabbi Kalmenson and Rabbi Abraham are both exceedingly knowledgeable in the realm of Jewish texts and ideas, each with a wealth of previous publications under his belt. Rabbi Kalmenson’s previous publications include Positivity Bias, a book of teachings inspired by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and A Time to Heal, a meditation on grief and loss likewise inspired by the Rebbe. During his time with the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, Rabbi Abraham published works such as Oasis in Time: The Gift of Shabbat in a 24/7 World. Both have written extensively for Jewish publications such as Chabad.org and Jewish Journal.
All this is to say that the two co-authors are not strangers to the ideas brought forth in this impressive volume. People of the Word is a bit of a more expansive project, though. In it, Rabbis Kalmenson and Abraham take on a significant challenge: Explaining, in brief yet profound terms, the essential spiritual ideas behind 50 Hebrew terms.
At first, I was skeptical that this was even possible. How could anyone possibly summarize centuries of thought and discussion about the meanings of even ten words without losing the plot? Especially considering that we, as a people, tend to have a lot of contradictory opinions. I was proven very wrong, however. The authors have implemented a number of very effective strategies in order to ensure the captivation of their readers. These, coupled with beautiful insights written in a clear and compelling voice throughout, work together to create a book that is captivating from start to finish.
As the subtitle of the book suggests, it comprises 50 chapters, each dedicated to a single Hebrew word. These range from obviously religious terms like “Torah” or “Synagogue” to broader concepts, like “Happiness” and “Time.” Each chapter is tripartite. It begins with an in-depth essay exploring the meanings and messages behind the word in question, supported by both Jewish and secular texts (they quote Socrates and FDR as seamlessly as they do the Mishnah). This essay is summarized by one or two sentences on the following page, titled The Big Idea. Finally, the chapter ends with a parable, usually about an interaction between a Rabbi and his students, that exemplifies the ideas we’ve just learned about.
This structure is extremely effective. The essays themselves are mostly brief (three or four pages long), the summaries are punchy and memorable, and the parables drive the point home. By maintaining this framework, Rabbis Abraham and Kalmenson are able to pack a great deal of fascinating historical information and conceptual ideas into short, bite-sized chapters. As a result, a reader can easily pick up the book and read one section at random, returning to another section when they’re able. This, in effect, allows a book that aims to bring divine wisdom to the everyday to truly accompany a person through their (usually hectic) day-to-day activities.
As for the content itself, it’s breathtaking. As I read, I found myself highlighting passages on each page and writing exclamation marks into the margins. There are so many pearls to discover; each chapter is chock-a-block with smart interpretations, explained in layperson’s terms. I grew up in a conservative household, attended conservative and orthodox schools until my late teens, and have worked extensively in a variety of roles within the Jewish community. Still, there were plenty of surprising insights in People of the Word. What’s better, even if I had not come to the text with prior experience in Jewish thought, I would have found it easy to read and packed with insight.
On page 97, for example, in the section about Tzedakah, defined here as Philanthropy, the authors write: “In fact, the Hebrew words for pauper, ani, and poverty, aniyut, are both derived from the root laanot, meaning to respond. This highlights that poverty is meant to elicit a response from those who have the means to give. Needs, lack, disadvantage, and oppression are all G-d’s invitations to us to fulfill our obligation to pursue justice through acts of tzedakah” (Italics in original)
I’d never thought of these connections, having instead always connected those two words to the other laanot, which means to torment. The insight here added a new layer to my understanding of how to help those in need. Their condition is, indeed, a form of torment, but inherent in the existence of those who are suffering is a duty on the part of other humans to laanot — respond. The two are part and parcel. We cannot (must not!) see torment without responding.
When I tell you every page is like this, please believe me.
I would be exaggerating if I said I agreed with every insight in the book. Particularly, the pages are missing the insights of women and gender-expansive thinkers. As a queer woman who is perpetually thinking about how Jewish ideas inform my life, I’m always looking for more ideas from those who have shared experiences with me. Nonetheless, I found it kind of thrilling to resonate with so many ideas on a molecular level, despite the fact that the authors and I actually come from vastly different experiences of Jewish life.
There are a great many ideas I fell in love with. On page 139, in a chapter about humility, the authors write that “…creativity, ingenuity, and insight come through us, not from us. This is why a talented person is called “gifted,” because everything is truly a gift from the Creator,” a concept I’ve always resonated with as a creative, Jewish person. There are also ideas I was less convinced about. In chapter eight, about education, they quote the Rebbe in a passage about children’s natural impulse being to “do whatever they see fit, without restraints,” and their need to be “trained […] until they attain sovereignty of mind over heart,” a sentiment that left me wondering how one might balance the two and retain a sense of one’s true self, especially if one’s path takes them outside the box.
Honestly, that’s great. A book that has you nodding the whole way through isn’t providing challenging ideas or food for thought. This book made me feel alive with contemplation in a welcome way. As we start the new Jewish year, I’m glad to have found this book to offer concepts to explore in the weeks and months ahead.